LA PAZ - Preparations continued in Bolivia on Saturday (July 4) for Pope Francis' upcoming visit with a security simulation and indigenous church services.
A steady sprinkling of snow did nothing to dampen the mood for parishioners awaiting the Pope's visit as members of Bolivia's indigenous Aymara community held church services in the Aymaran language.
At the international airport of El Alto preparations and rehearsals were underway to assure a flawless visit.
"The Pope will arrive here tomorrow and afterwards security will be on both roads. On the other side our brothers and sisters of the indigenous communities of El Alto with their mandolins, which is typical. They will sing a song and we will receive the church authorities as the Pope is our pastor," explained Tomas Cornejo Aro, the coordinator of the Papal visit of the Archdiocese of El Alto.
In La Paz, El Alto and Santa Cruz, police officers deployed in the streets to run through security procedures. The simulation opened in La Paz with the pontiff's arrival and continued through his expected visits to the other two Bolivian cities.
A local restaurant prepared a gift for President Evo Morales to present to the Pope - Holy Communion wafers made from three kinds of Bolivian quinoa.
"The International Center for Quinoa contacted us here in Bolivia and the producers liked the idea of giving a symbolic gift to the Pope and of course the wafer is widely known and making it out of quinoa is a nice gift," said Kamila Seidler, the head chef for Gustu, the restaurant chosen to make the wafers.
When Pope Francis visits Bolivia next week, he will discover a nation that cherishes animal sacrifices and pagan worship and where relations between indigenous communities and the Roman Catholic Church have been strained. The country's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has frequently clashed with the church.
Francis sets out on Sunday for Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, three of South America's smallest and most impoverished nations, taking with him a message of solidarity for the downtrodden.
Church leaders in Bolivia are calling the visit "Reconciliation and Renewal". The Argentina-born pontiff, the first Latin American pope, will seek to heal rifts between the country's indigenous people and the descendants of its Spanish colonial conquerors, who brought the Catholic faith to Bolivia. Three in every four people in the country of 10.6 million are Catholic.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who has been in office since 2006, promised early in his presidency to govern in favor of the indigenous majority, marginalized by the ruling elite and left as poor farmers after Spain colonized the Andean nation.
The former coca farmer called the Catholic Church "an instrument of domination which brings injustice and inequality" in 2008. A year later, Morales backed a constitutional referendum that stripped the Catholic Church of its official status and declared Bolivia a secular state.
Felix Cardenas, Bolivia's vice-minister for decolonization and a supporter of the 2009 constitutional changes, has acknowledged the reforms had damaged the government's relations with conservative Catholic leaders.
However, he has cited the pope's concerns for the environment as a potential bridge. "He seems like a Pope who wants to look after Mother Earth," Cardenas said. "We hope the pope can be a positive example for the ultra conservative elements of the church here."
Chewing coca would be a strong signal the pope appreciated Bolivia's indigenous values, Cardenas said, referring to the widespread indigenous custom of chewing the leaves that are a mild stimulant, and the major ingredient of cocaine.
The Vatican said last week the pope would decide for himself whether to chew the leaves in order to ward off altitude sickness when he lands at La Paz. -Reuters
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